Signs of Life in a Big city

Humans are hardwired to look out for signs. A sign of danger, a sign of opportunity, a safe place to rest, and a sign that points us in the right direction so we can arrive at our destination on time.

Make your way around any city of the World and you’ll see lots of signs to guide you on your way.

But some of these signs are not what we expect, and not the signs we want to spend time pondering. I don’t like to be directed towards the city morgue for example. It makes me feel a little queasy to even pass by an undertaker’s establishment.

In my city most funeral directors have their place of business in a cellar, you pass it at foot level. There’s a big sign on the door, and you can see that they’ve done their best to make it all seem a normal thing, just walk inside and have a chat about your future.

At foot level, there’s a sign, a warning sign, “Danger: steep shute beyond these doors”. Now that summons up thoughts of where my future might lie.

Other signs that we see are the ones we have had enough of. Advertisements. They are not so much signs, more like posters and plaques that catch our attention. These type of signs will always have a smiling model glaring at you, telling you that they feel so much better because they use a particular product.

I do think about these signs, and this part of our sub-culture that seems to dominate everyday life. I’m not allowed, by law, to put up photos of my artwork on lampposts in the streets, but a guy who wants to sell me a vaping lifestyle, can get in my face with his tacky idea of why I should buy his product, and be just like the smiling lady in the photograph.

Adverts that sell face cream, body lotions and hand ointments make me laugh. They are great conversational pieces that get a giggle as you walk along the street. The person in the advert is always about 22 years old. We see their wrinkle free face, photoshopped skin tones and a smooth skinned hand holding a small tub of cream; the secret to their youthful looks is in the product, apparently. “You’re secret is your youth”, are the words that always pop up in my mind.

I like those plaques that you see on doorways. The brass plaques that you have to stop and read carefully if you want to understand. There’s one in a street close to my home, “The Hoffmann Family lived and worked in this building”. I’ve stopped and read the plaque a couple of times. I have no idea which Hoffmann family lived there, I only know what the sign says. They had a small factory on the second floor, and lived there between these certain years. But it is a nice sign to stop and think about, it calms the mind and makes you forget the worries of the day. It’s pleasant and harmless to think about other people, other times. Definitely a nice sign to read.

When I’ve finished reading the sign and turn around, I’m confronted by a little green man — or at least I hope he’s green.

He may have turned red in the time I was away with my thoughts. He’ll give me the wave that it’s safe to step out into the street and make my way across to the underground train entrance, on the other side of the road there’s a clearly marked sign, a large white arrow on blue background, that shows me the way to the entrance.

I have to walk down the steps without the aid of a sign. But the smell of the underground soon reaches my nose, and the rush of air pressure from incoming trains threatening to knock me off my feet, gives me a pretty good sign of where I am.

The platforms in the underground are the perfect scenario for signs and plaques. You have to wait a few minutes for the next train to come in, so you have your reading material all around. Of course the biggest signs are the advertisements.

The smallest writing on the wall are legal advice signs. There used to be a big poster in a wooden frame at the entrance to each underground station. It would advise the public about their duty towards children in public places. Thirty clauses of good ideas about your civic duty. Adults had a duty to ensure kids were safe — they still do as far as I’m concerned, so it baffles me as to why these plaques were removed. I imagine it’s a European union thing.

You don’t see any public signs that advise you to watch out for your fellow human. Nothing like, “Don’t step on other people’s new shoes”, or “ Don’t stand too close to people reading books on the subway”. These signs would encourage a much needed mentality of being considerate towards other people.

Most signs tell us blatantly what we have to do. “Stop” — “Don’t Walk” — “Stay Seated while the Bus is in Transit”. We get our orders everyday on the way to work, or when we are visiting friends on the other side of the city.

Somewhere in Berlin there is a big sign. You can only see it when you are on the overland train, travelling from west to east. If you keep your eyes peeled you get a quick glimpse of a distant building, and on the facade an artist has painted a beautiful message — “ It’s Okay to Love one another!”. You can see it if you’re lucky enough to be looking in the right direction, one moment it’s there, looming up into a sunny space, then the next it’s covered by the dark shapes of a moving landscape.

Signs like the artist’s sign of love, are extremely effective.

If you walk along the same street and pass the building, you won’t see it because it’s blended into the landscape. Seeing a sign of love from a distance is a powerful thing, it touches us.

There’s something about a sign, written in tall words, a border separating it from the rest of the world, it tells us something about our potential. We can love if we choose to do so.

The words in the distance work like a whispering thought, a quick flash of inspiration from afar; it leaves a sentiment of destiny in our hearts — it could’ve been a special sign for each of us. It’s okay to love. To believe those words. It’s not skin cream, it’s like the news that we’ve been waiting to hear about.

I don’t know who the artist is who made the sign of love. I don’t know who made the signs that order me to sit down, walk, stop, wait, and the ones that confuse me.

Red lights make us Stop and look. Green lights make us Go.

One night I was headed back home. It was late, 05.30 am in the city, a weekend and the streets were empty of cars and buses. Nobody around. I came to a red light that indicated I must stop and wait. I knew I should wait. I stood hoping that it’ll change its opinion pretty soon, and let me Go with a green sign.

Some traffic lights are moody, they don’t have a regular time on them. They change their colors quickly sometimes, and then they sulk and stay red faced for much too long. This one stayed red like it was Sunday morning. I stepped out into the empty street, a broad four lane boulevard type street, walked five paces. The lights still red.

Out of a dark corner of the street I saw a flash of blue. It flashed again and again, blue, blue, blue, with little snippets of silver-white between each flash. My heart leaped, and I knew I was in for it. I’d committed a crime. I had walked without permission.

The cop car cut a red light on the other side of the street, did a sweeping U-turn and drove into the street, contra to the normal flow of traffic. In other words, the cops were all wrong, and I was all wrong, but they were right.

They pulled up in front of me. Window wound down, and two tired looking faces peered at me.

“You know why we stopped you?”

“I walked across the red light.”

“There could’ve been some traffic coming, that would’ve caused an accident,right?” Said the cop.

I looked along the empty street, listened for traffic that I couldn’t see by cocking my head to the side.

The cop grunted at me. I waited for him to speak again, but he said nothing. I was waiting for a sign from him to tell me that I’m getting a fine. Or maybe he can’t be bothered?

Finally, I asked him if I could go. He grunted and flicked his head with the universal sign for, “get outta here”. I walked away, feeling confused about the whole issue of a street that is absolutely empty, the red light, the cop telling me that there could’ve been an accident with traffic — all due to my stupidity of walking over a red traffic light.

Sometimes we think we know better than the signs we see everywhere in a city. Some of them help keep us safe, and some give us tips and hints about where to go to stop the boredom, “Historical 17th century Church”, along this street, “Shopping Zone”, around the next corner.

The signs in a city are signs of life. They show things, give us ideas, and tell us whether it’s time to sit or stand, to wait or walk. I would love to see a sign that says, “Breathe”, or “Slow down, enjoy yourself”.

The sign on the wall that says,”It’s Okay to Love One another!”, might be a beginning. It may encourage some other artists to go out into the city at night and daub new signs across the facades, “Be Good to Each Other.” — “ Stop, and Breathe, it’ll make You Feel Better”.

Written by

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living http://seandurham.eu

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